Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  Dr Iddon: From what I have heard this morning it sounds as if the present focus is on commercial exploitation of space research. Do you think the balance should be shifted a little in terms of exploration and discovery?

  Professor Mason: I think they go hand-in-hand. As you chart new frontiers, opportunities for commercial exploitation arise either directly or indirectly. That is what history tells us, and I think you can see that in the history of our space activity. One has to recognise that the space arena has always been led by scientific endeavour and it is a very challenging environment to operate. It is one which galvanises bright people into thinking about new ideas and generating things which can then be translated into commercial opportunities. Perhaps if there was one—at least within government circles—mistake that was made in the past it was to see those two things as separate activities: science on the one hand, and commercial exploitation as being something that can stand on its own remit. In fact, the links are so strong you have to see them hand-in-hand, and one leads to the other.

  Q181  Chairman: Richard, would you comment on that, please?

  Professor Holdaway: Yes. You are asking about the next phase of the UK space strategy. Of course, we live in a space-enabled economy. You mentioned earlier on that this broadcast is being carried around the world, and it is being carried around the world through satellite and through satellite technology. Actually, satellite technology affects pretty much every member of the population, whether it is through live TV broadcasts, whether it is through having information on disaster monitoring or underpinning the information on climate change. Even the whole banking system in this country now depends pretty much on that technology. However, the food chain that leads to that technology is research, then conceptual design, then the development of the technology and then the spacecraft, and it is the early stages of that where we have a real funding crisis in this country. That is the underpinning idea behind the joint science space technology programme, which is a core part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

  Q182  Dr Iddon: Do you think the Space Centre has the ability to scan the horizon—where are we going to be in 50 years' time? The Americans are already planning staging posts on the cold side of Mars to explore the rest of space. Are we thinking in those directions?

  Professor Mason: We could do more in that, and that comes back to my ambition agenda. I think BNSC does an excellent job with very limited resources, but in the partnership as a whole I think we need a mechanism of doing that horizon scanning, and horizon scanning across the whole partnership rather than just within individual members. That is part of the evolution that I think we should be pushing forward to ensure that our space activities generally remain fit for the future.

  Q183  Dr Iddon: When we had Piers Sellers in front of us a few weeks ago, before Christmas, and five of the seven crew which returned in July last year, we challenged them on robotic exploration of space versus manned exploration of space, and they were quite adamant that the only way forward is to explore space using human beings. I mentioned to the earlier group of witnesses that the science minister seems to be thinking that we have to keep an eye on manned exploration of space. What is the attitude of the three witnesses before us now?

  Professor Mason: My attitude is clear: I think Piers Sellers would agree that what is actually required is a partnership between manned and robotic exploration. There are places where robots will do a better job, there are places where humans might do a better job. As has been rehearsed in the previous session, the UK currently does not have an involvement in manned space flight, and I think that was probably the right decision to have been made historically, in terms of not getting involved in the international space station, etc. I think history has demonstrated that was probably the right thing for the UK to have done at the time, but we need to keep an open mind for the future. The way I look at it, if in 20 years' time there is a reliable and sustainable infrastructure on the moon, for example, then in order to be doing the sort of science that the UK is currently strong in we would probably want to be involved in that. We have to at least examine that question with an open mind and plan our future accordingly. As Dave was saying earlier, we do not have to make a decision in the next five years but we should certainly be looking at the distant future, or the not-so-distant future—2020 is not that far away—and saying: "Where do we want to be positioned at that time?" We are already getting involved in the global exploration strategy and currently we are emphasising our skills in robotics and small satellites, which is exactly the right thing to do. There are huge scientific and technical opportunities, huge commercial opportunities, and some of those might well involve human access in the future. We should maintain an open mind.

  Q184  Dr Iddon: We have been talking about the current budget. If we made that important decision to get into manned exploration, how would that budget change? Would it double, would it treble? It is pretty costly to put people up there.

  Professor Mason: This is one of the things we have to examine, and, of course, there is a cost-benefit analysis. It is more of a graded scale than, perhaps, people realise, and provided one works in partnership with, for example, our European partners in ESA or within a bilateral relationship with NASA the costs need not be unaffordable. Certainly the budget will need to go up from what it is now, by perhaps a factor of two, not factors of ten.

  Q185  Dr Iddon: You have heard what the previous set of witnesses said about launchers. We can carry on buying space from other nations. What is your view? Should we get back into launcher technology or not?

  Professor Mason: Launcher technology is one of these very exciting areas. Certainly what interests me, particularly, is small-scale launchers and marrying that with our small satellite industry, which we are very strong in. There is a growing and burgeoning private market in small-scale launchers, and you will be aware of efforts around the world to develop such things by private companies, essentially. In the very near future we will find a very healthy market for our needs and I agree with previous panel members that I do not think we need to lose too much sleep about not being in the launcher business currently.

  Q186  Chairman: Before we move on to Adam, can I ask you, Air Vice-Marshal, whether you have any comments about manned space flight and launchers.

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: I am happy to make a couple of general comments, Mr Chairman. First of all, we recognise the importance of space to defence. Some commentators have suggested that 90% of defence capability is supported from space, be that in communications or data transmission, and if you look at reliance on precision navigation and timing, and so on and so forth. So we have a very keen interest in where space is going. Particularly, as an airman, I see space through the prism of air power, and an extension of air power's capability beyond the upper atmosphere into space. In terms of the question you asked earlier, Doctor, on what contribution partners can make to the BNSC, and what the MoD brings, I think Professor Mason has already pointed out the benefits of the technology needed in looking at space. We see that very much at the MoD end; we are looking all the time at disruptive technology and how actually we can exploit disruptive technology for the benefits of defence. We see there are a lot of exciting programmes in space that we would like to be at the front end of. So being a member of the board allows me to see the context of where space in general is moving inside the UK, and where we can find areas to work together. We have a number of people embedded within the BNSC: the head of technology, for example, is an MoD scientist. So we have a very close relationship and understanding of where that technology is going. In terms of what we could do in terms of strengthening the general UK policy on space, I think the contribution the MoD would like to make is we have worked quite carefully over the last year to craft our own policy and strategy in space and where we would like to see it going, and we have a number of key areas, which I would be happy to explain a little later—

  Q187  Chairman: The specific question to you was: do you have a comment about manned space flight and launchers?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: In terms of the other contribution we would like to make, it is: are there parts of the UK science and technology we think we can exploit? One of the areas that has already been mentioned is the area of small satellite technology, and we are very keen to stay alongside the small satellite program and perhaps see how we can grow it. We have been involved in the TOPSAT programme and we are looking as well to see how we might develop from that. Allied with the small satellite programme, of course, is the question of a launcher, and at this stage we do not have a firm plan to be involved in a launcher but we would very much like to explore a dialogue with industry, and others, to see how we could develop a low-cost launcher system. We are very aware of what is happening inside the United States, and what various entrepreneurs are doing there, and there may well be an opportunity here for industry to get together to exploit not just a UK market but a global market.

  Q188  Adam Afriyie: Would the MoD like to see manned space flight? Would that be useful to you?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: In terms of the manned space flight question, of course, the first things that excites people like myself, as an airman, is that it attracts people's attention, excites people about space and takes them forward. I cannot see, at this stage, a direct military application of having a man in space, but certainly we would be very keen to be involved in understanding that space programme, and the science that comes with it, and the potential benefit that might accrue.

  Q189  Chairman: Before giving you back to Adam, I would like an answer from you on launchers. Are you saying on behalf of the MoD that the MoD is perfectly happy not to have any launch capability whatsoever in terms of putting military satellites into space?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: Mr Chairman, at the moment, the MoD's—

  Q190  Chairman: Is it yes or no?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: The MoD's aim is to achieve assured access to space, and at the moment we achieve that from a number of mechanisms. We see the benefits though, and we get that from other partners, as you know, not directly from MoD systems.

  Q191  Chairman: I would like you to answer the question I am putting to you.

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: We do see the benefits of a potential, low-cost launcher to help support a low-cost small satellite.

  Q192  Adam Afriyie: The boundary between civil and military space programmes is often fairly blurred; we had the analogy earlier about the dual use of satellites, so you may be using GPS for military purposes as well as GPS for civil purposes. We have heard that the MoD's involvement in BNSC is fairly low, both in financial terms and in commitment terms. Is that a fair assessment, given that there is a very pressing need for military and civil satellite space programmes to be combined in some way?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: I would come back to an answer I gave earlier, which was that our aim is to make sure we have assumed access to space. We have, as you know, a very special relationship with the United States, which delivers most of our space-based products, but we do believe there are some areas—certainly disruptive technology and a responsive space capability—that we are keen to get involved in. Where there are sensible investments we can make in small satellite technology, particularly, we are keen to look at that issue.

  Q193  Adam Afriyie: So you are comfortable with a little bit of blurring of the lines, as they exist at the moment? I think BNSC were fairly clear in saying that whilst you could not outlaw somebody on a military operation using civil GPS, actually, conceptually, the MoD should not be doing that.

  Professor Mason: I think the issue there, just to add a bit of clarity, is that we do not want military applications driving the design of assets for civilian use. That is the real nub of the issue.

  Q194  Adam Afriyie: Would you be comfortable with that, or would you prefer to have the military driving some of the design, especially when you mention it would be helpful to have a low-cost launch capability, and something else you just mentioned about a great benefit from the use of space for military purposes?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: Our specific interest in this, as you recognise, is in precision navigation. At the moment, the MoD's precision navigation requirements, both now and as we see it in the foreseeable future, are provided by GPS. What is important from a military perspective is that we can secure our access to precision navigation for the future, and we need to ensure that other people do not deny that capability. I recognise myself that as technology develops the quality of precision navigation in the civil market will increase, and therefore there may well be a point in future where some of the civil navigation systems could be used for broad-based military applications, but there is always going to be a military requirement for a more precise system, and in fact we need to be able to secure that precise system in the future and ensure that it is not blocked in any way, shape or form.

  Q195  Adam Afriyie: Before I come to Richard, it seems that we are very dependent on the US for a lot of our military space support. Do you think that dual-use satellites, a review of the way the BNSC works, and a greater blurring of the lines, if you like, between driving research space programmes for military ends would be beneficial to reduce that dependency?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: I would go back to Professor Mason's point that it is important that you start off with a clear distinction between the two. What I would say, as a military man, though, is if there is a civil system out there which has a military application then, in the future, we would be amiss not to take that.

  Professor Holdaway: I just want to make the point that one of the key issues is the dual use of technology between the civil programme and the military programme. Of course, there is an extremely good example of that over the last two years, which is the MOSAIC TOPSAT programme, which used a small satellite, developed at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, for a world-leading, very small, compact camera[1] but for being able to see higher resolution images of the ground. That was a programme run jointly by the DTI and the Ministry of Defence making really good use of technology on both sides. Of course, that then has led to the spin-out of a high-tech company, which is just about to be sold to a multinational company. So you see the food chain from small amounts of seed corn funding right through to wealth creation through spin out.

  Q196  Adam Afriyie: How effective has the TOPSAT surveillance programme been?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: So far, it has been a success with a successful launch and we have had a successful receipt of images. We are going through a process now of evaluating just how successful that has been, and we have already started a dialogue inside the MoD as to what we might want to do beyond the TOPSAT programme. We might develop a radar sensor capability.

  Q197  Adam Afriyie: So it has been a good experience and it looks like you may be pursuing that.

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: It has been a good experience and we would like to try and explore further, building on that capability.

  Q198  Chairman: Just to finish with this, Air Vice-Marshal, do you accept that the MoD's involvement in space is fairly low in financial terms and in commitment terms to the British space industry? Is that a fair comment?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: It is a fair comment in the context, Mr Chairman, that the MoD has significant access to space and space-based capabilities, and we achieve that at a relatively low cost. There are some niche capabilities we think we would like to exploit, and in that context, yes, our investment is low but, as we see the benefits, that could increase in the future.[2]

  Q199  Chairman: Your comment to Adam Afriyie in terms of the dual use of technology, it seems to me—and correct me if I am wrong—you will use it provided somebody else provides it.

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: I come back to what our aim is; to gain assured access to space-based capability.

1   Note by the witness: It was the camera that was developed at RAL, not the satellite. I guess my statement was ambiguous. Back

2   Note by the witness: This answer focuses on the MoD's investment on capabilities currently provided through a relationship with the US. The MoD has made a significant investment in the SKYNET programme to provide communication and data transmission series and through the Met Office invests in EUMETSAT. Refer to the MoD's written evidence. Back

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